Thanks to the efforts of George Clooney and others, South Sudan became the world’s newest state in 2011 after its citizens voted in favor of independence from Sudan. The country enjoyed two years of peace until another civil war broke out.

During the period of peace, Rochester’s St John the Evangelist Church organized an effort to open a K-8 Catholic School in Pukuka, Yei, South Sudan. The project operated under the name Seeds of Wisdom (SOW) and was inspired in large part by Father John Lasuba, who joined the St John parish 14 years ago. He grew up in the Pukuka area but had to flee as a young child with his mother after witnessing the killings of his father and three brothers by soldiers from North Sudan. Father John just returned to Rochester after spending the last five weeks visiting the refugee camps and other sites.

The school opened about a year ago with 230 students and had plans to add over 100 more. But the effects of the civil war eventually reached the Pukuka area and the staff and students fled. Many ended up in neighboring Uganda and that’s where some good news filtered back to Rochester.

SOW Board President Steve Deick says 46 of the students who fled have been placed in Catholic boarding schools in Uganda.  Deick says the administrator of the Pukuka school continues to work for SOW, now based in Uganda. He has located more of the students who fled with their families. Dieck says funds intended for operating the school this year have been re-purposed to support the mission through financially sponsoring these students to attend the Uganda schools. He says additional funds previously donated have been put in savings, expecting the school facility in Pukuka will require work before it can re-open.

Steve, his wife Brenda and their five children spent three months at the school last year, overseeing construction of the facility, hiring staff, and helping get it ready for its opening. 

Here are some questions given to Deick:

Are there plans to continue funding the SOW operation in S Sudan?  If not, what will happen to the current funds?

Many areas of South Sudan were experiencing unrest over the past years, but the Yei area had been peaceful for many years.  In the summer of 2016, the government decided to station more soldiers there, which seems to polarize the population.  When stability and peace return, we are anxious to re-open the school.  We have every hope to re-open the school soon, but understand it may take years.

We are planning a fundraiser in the fall of 2017 to allow us to continue the sponsorship program (and hopefully expand it) in 2018.  (Their school year goes from February to December).

What is the long range plan for the school/mission?

We are taking this one year at a time right now.  We are hopeful for the future.  When we are able to re-open the school, we plan to discontinue sponsoring students to other schools and again focus on maintaining a school in the Pukuka area.  We have developed many relationships with these families and it is very difficult to see their lives in disarray.  They long to return to their homes, their land, their crops, their neighbors.

The St John parish was given this update this past week:

This week, Fr. John is returning from his visit to Uganda - visiting the schools in Arua and the refugee camps nearby. He will have much to tell as he recounts his experiences. We will look forward to sharing more details of his visit in our June update. For this month, we are happy to let you know that the 43 children we are sponsoring are doing quite well in the schools in Arua. One student has moved up one grade and the few students who are struggling are working with teachers to catch up or are making a choice to move down one grade, if necessary. For our former students remaining in the refugee camps, the learning situation is extremely challenging. There are too many children for the limited number of teachers, there are very few supplies and the children often gather under trees in the absence of buildings. When the rains begin, even this will not be possible. Fr. John went to St. Kizito school to visit the students, accompanied by our
former teachers. The children were very excited to see Fr. John and interact with the teachers. The teachers and the parents of children in the refugee camps also met with Fr. John to share their thoughts about the very difficult living conditions in the camps and possibilities about how best to move forward.

Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury will be visiting South Sudan in a few months; we ask for your prayers that the intercession and guidance of these two religious leaders might help restore peace to this war-ravaged country and the people of Pukuka, and all of South Sudan, may return home.

Check here for more information on the Seeds of Wisdom initiative.

Here is a recent AP story on the situation in South Sudan

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — The new American director of the World Food Program called the suffering in South Sudan’s famine “deplorable” as he visited the country and called on the government to allow aid groups safe access.

“We want to feed the hungry children and the innocent civilians,” David Beasley told The Associated Press before departing Tuesday for the affected area. “If you let us do our job, we’ll get it done.”

South Sudan’s civil war is now into its fourth year, with farming and markets disrupted and food prices soaring. Both violence and harassment have slowed aid efforts.

His visit came a day after President Salva Kiir again called for a unilateral ceasefire to go into effect immediately. It requires all soldiers to stop attacking rebels. Kiir also promised to release political prisoners, but there was no immediate sign of any deal struck with the opposition.

South Sudanese pro-government forces killed 114 civilians in a single town last year and brutally raped girls and women in front of their families amid growing ethnic violence in the country’s civil war, a new United Nations report said Friday.

The investigation released by the U.N. human rights office said those cases and other abuses in Yei between July and January may amount to crimes against humanity. Abuses included the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, attacks on funerals, looting and burning.

Yei is where The Associated Press late last year witnessed bodies with their hands bound. Satellite images showed “widespread burning of homes and businesses,” the report said.

The new report pointed out the “startling level of impunity in South Sudan” that has fed cycles of deadly ethnic violence.

South Sudan government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny rejected the report’s findings, saying the government is operating within the law. “It’s not true,” he told the AP. “(Ethnic) Dinkas in that area were being targeted by rebels.” Ethnic Dinkas dominate the military and government of President Salva Kiir.

Opposition forces also have been responsible for abuses in South Sudan’s conflict, now in its fourth year. “The extent of the abuses by armed opposition groups remains unclear due to lack of access to areas where these groups are active,” the report said.

Until last year, Yei had been largely peaceful with 200,000 to 300,000 people from various tribes. But after deadly violence erupted in the capital, Juba, in July, fighting spread to parts of South Sudan that had been spared by the conflict. As rebel leader Riek Machar fled into neighboring Congo, fighting broke out in Yei and elsewhere along his path.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the civil war. More than 1.8 million have fled the country in what has become the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.

United Nations satellite images obtained by The Associated Press show at least 18,000 structures have been destroyed in the Yei area of South Sudan. It is one of the most significant caches of evidence of widespread destruction in the country's civil war.

For 24/7 news and sports check KROC AM and follow KROC-AM on Facebook.